Friday, April 06, 2018

Worth It All (Part 5 of 7)

* This is Part 5 of a historical fiction novella that I wrote in 2005, now publicly available for the first time. You can find the other parts by clicking the "Worth It All" link under the Full Series list in the sidebar.

It didn’t take long for Victor’s parents to decide that they didn’t approve of their son’s decision. Aidan McNeill seemed at first to take it all in stride, though his displeasure came out more and more in the following days, as he seemed always to be sullen and quiet. Clara, however, pleaded with her son, weeping at times, trying to convince him to pursue his earlier course and become a physician.
“Victor,” she said over and over again, “I really think you should reconsider all this. Go find Anna, apologize to the girl and ask her to marry you, and move on to your practice in London. You’re my only son, Victor, and I want to live to see my grandchildren.”
But the answer was always the same. “I am bound to my conscience and my faith, Mother. I can’t turn back now. I will be a missionary.”
Nevertheless, she continued to plead with him, warning him of the dangers ahead, of the obstacles of shipwreck and disease, violence and wild beasts. This went on for several days, as Victor remained around the house for the most part, working in the garden, talking with Julius, and spending his time in the pages of the Bible and William Carey’s Enquiry. He wrote to Dr. Taylor in London, informing him of his decision not to join the practice. He also began to seek information for ships that would be venturing down toward the coast of Africa, but that effort proved fruitless at first.
One morning, a week after Anna’s birthday ball, Victor rose to a gorgeous, sunlit day and made his way to the kitchen. The aroma of freshly-brewed tea filled the air, and he breathed deeply. The golden sunlight was streaming in through the windows, creating a beautiful, dappled pattern on the hardwood floor.
He smiled contentedly. Despite the emotional pain of letting go of Anna, he felt surprisingly whole in spirit—he had a mission to pursue, and that point of focus held him together when everything else in his life seemed to be spinning out of control. There was a song in his heart—a new song now, not one of friendships past but of the road that lay ahead.
Victor took a seat at the table and sipped a cup of hot tea while paging through his Bible. He hadn’t managed to down half of the tea before his mother appeared in the doorway, her dark, wide eyes somewhat bloodshot.
“Mother,” he said, rising to take her by the shoulders. “You need to get more sleep. Are you feeling well?”
She drew a deep breath and shook her head. He walked her to a chair, where she collapsed with a sigh.
“No, Victor,” she said when he had taken his seat again across from her. “No, I don’t feel well. Listen to me, son—I know I’ve been absolutely wretched to you these past few days—”
“No, Mother, it’s understandable—”
She held up a hand, cutting him off. “Just let me speak for a minute…please.”
He nodded obediently, pouring her a cup of tea while she gathered her strength.
“I was up all last night. I couldn’t sleep. Sometime after midnight, I began to pray. And it wasn’t long before I began to see another side of this whole affair. I am sorry, Victor—sorry to see you go, sorry to be losing my only boy. But I know that God has called you to this, and I understand that you have to answer—even though I still don’t like it. But I know that he will give me peace in his own time. This is something that I need to support you in.”
Victor smiled gently. “Thank you. That means more to me—well, more to me than I could possibly find the words to express.”
“Honestly, though, I still don’t know why you can’t try to persuade Anna Nelson to go with you,” she said, perking up a bit and offering a smile. She sipped the tea for a few moments. “I know, I know. You still care for her, and this is your way of protecting her from danger.”
Victor was silent, his eyes fixed on the brown tea at the bottom of his cup, which he swirled around repetitively.
“Well, don’t feel like I’m pressuring you, son. I expect that we’ll hear soon enough that she has gotten herself engaged to that naval gentleman.”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“I don’t think you’ll have much success finding a bride among the heathen African tribes, either.”
“Probably not.”
“Shouldn’t you be working a little harder at this, then? What about that Carmichael girl?”
“I’m fairly certain that Ruben has his eye on her.”
“Well, I think you should keep your eyes open. There are a lot of good women out there, you know—many who love the Lord and have hearts bolder than you could dare to dream.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” he chuckled, swallowing the last of his tea.
“I’m sorry, Victor—I don’t mean to be patronizing.”
“You’ve a right to be concerned, Mother.” He rose and stretched. “We’ll see what comes of it all soon enough, I imagine. If it’s such a great concern, begin to pray that the Lord would give me a wife. I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.”
She smiled. “My dear boy, I’ve been praying that for years.”
“Then hopefully I won’t be able to escape it!” he laughed, turning on his heel. He began to walk away, but another thought stopped him in his tracks. “I don’t think Julius is awake yet. But I’ve begun to warm some beans there on the stove for his breakfast.”
“I’ll make sure he gets them. Where are you headed today?”
“I have to find Ruben. I haven’t spoken to him since the ball, and I want to hear his reaction to all of this. Then I’m going to go to London—I told you about that, right?”
“Yes, to speak to the Mission Society. I remember.”
“But I’ll be back in a few days.”
“Well, don’t waste your time standing around, son. Go find Ruben. No doubt he’s heard some of all this already. When a young man spurns the advances of the most beautiful young lady in town, word begins to get around.”
He winked at her, throwing a light coat over his shoulders. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been the center of gossip in this town,” he laughed.
He marched out the door and over to the stables. A cloud of fog still clung to the lower parts of the city, and he turned to watch in wonder for a few moments as the heat of the rising sun began to drive it away. Throwing open the doors, he was greeted by a sharp whinny. The stables smelled distinctly of hay and horse manure, a harsh and familiar scent that evoked a desire to be riding on the wind.
“Good morning, Phaeton,” he called out cheerily. “And why are you so restless, my bold friend? You’ve already had your breakfast.”
It took a few minutes to fasten the saddle onto the bay horse’s broad back, and once that was finished, Victor led him out by his reins. Streams of sunlight washed over them, and Phaeton nickered happily. Victor climbed into the saddle and drew in a deep breath.
“Alright, boy,” he said, “let’s find Ruben.”
With a flick of the reins, they were off, trotting down the narrow lane that led back into the city. Ruben lived with his family in a squalid, run-down house on the fringes of the city, where farmland began to dominate the landscape. It took Victor a full half-hour to arrive there because he took a circuitous route through the town, pausing to gaze up at the cathedral spire for a few minutes before continuing on. Going to London to set up a practice there was one thing, but sailing for Africa was quite another. The chances were not in his favor for ever returning to his hometown again.
Instead of stopping at the O’Connell house, he rode past it and began down a stretch of overgrown farm road. Two of Ruben’s youngest brothers and one of his sisters were playing there in the lane, laughing and shrieking as they tossed pebbles at each other. But when Victor rode up, they ceased their game and ran up to greet him.
“Victor! Victor!”
Grinning broadly, he dismounted and knelt beside them, ruffling their dirty hair.
“Hello, lads,” he nodded to the two boys.
Kelly, the girl of about seven years, stood before him with her little hands on her hips. Victor smiled at her, and gently took her hand and brought it to his lips.
“Good morning, my lady,” he said with utter solemnity, at which she giggled and broke out into a bright smile.
The boys laughed. “She’s not a lady!”
“Yes, I am!” she responded indignantly, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Take note of that, lads,” Victor chuckled. “There’ll come a day when you’ll want to impress a lady or two as well.”
“That’s disgusting,” said one. “I’ll never want to impress a girl. Girls are dirty.”
Kelly raised a knowing eyebrow at her brother. “You try to impress girls all the time!”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yes, you do. What about Sylvia Mercer?”
The boy began to blush, and Victor laughed, giving him an affectionate cuff on the arm. “Keep at it, lad. One of these days you’ll catch her eye.”
The boy appeared unconvinced.
“Is Ruben working in the fields today?” Victor asked them.
“No,” Kelly replied, swaying back and forth coyly so that her skirt swirled around her ankles. Then she looked up and leaned in as if imparting a great secret to him. “He’s visiting his lady friend.”
“Is that so?” he laughed. “Miss Carmichael?” Both boys nodded, and Victor shook his head in wonder. “The boy moves quicker than I expected. Very well then, thank you.” He rose and was about to climb into the saddle again when Kelly came up beside him and tugged on his trousers.
“I want to ride.”
He grinned and picked her up, setting her at the front of the saddle and clambering up behind. At this, both boys insisted that they also be allowed to ride, so Victor promised them that their turns would come, and he spent nearly half an hour there with them, riding Phaeton back and forth down the little farm road.
When he arrived at the Carmichael house some time later, he was in high spirits. Dismounting quickly, he tethered Phaeton to the little fence and rushed up to the door. He rapped sharply and waited until it swung open. Patience’s father John stood there, his bulky frame dominating the doorway.
“Victor McNeill!” the minister practically shouted, seizing the youth by his shoulders.
“Hello, John.”
“And how are you doing, friend?”
“Fine, sir. I’ve come to check on Ruben, if he’s here. I was told he had come to pay a visit to Patience.”
“Aye, he’s here. Come on in.”

~ ~ ~

Mary knocked gently on the door—once, twice, but no answer came. She tried the knob, and carefully swung the door inwards.
“My lady?” she whispered, glancing around the room. It was a large room, furnished beautifully with rich tapestries and bright paintings. The curtains of the four-poster bed were pulled tight, and the maid’s brow furrowed with worry. She marched over to the glass doors that led out onto a small balcony and pulled them open. Golden sunlight filled the room in an instant, and sweet-smelling air from the gardens wafted up over the balcony. Nodding in satisfaction, the maid turned and gazed at the bed. Anna was peering out at her, her hair disheveled and her eyes slightly glazed.
“Good morning, Miss Anna.”
“What time is it, Mary?”
“A quarter past nine, my lady. Do you want me to bring breakfast up to you?”
“I shouldn’t have stayed up so late,” she groaned, throwing herself back onto the bed.
Mary smiled gently and went to sit on the edge of the mattress. “It wasn’t so late.”
“No,” she agreed. “But it takes longer to fall asleep now. I must have my time—to think…to pray…and to forget.”
“There are other ways of forgetting, my lady.”
“I suppose there are. I didn’t think it would be so hard to let go.”
Mary gazed out the window. “Lieutenant Green must leave for Portsmouth in three days’ time,” she said absently.
“Yes. I know. He’s being given command of a 14-gun sloop. Sets sail in three weeks, I believe.”
“But do you know what that means, Miss Anna?” she turned her head, a knowing eyebrow raised.
“What are you getting at, Mary?”
“Well, it’s no secret…” she blushed. “The Lieutenant has been speaking with Lord Nelson a great deal of late.”
And in that instant, Anna knew what her maid was trying to tell her. “Of me? Have they been speaking of me?”
“Yes, Miss Anna.”
She let out an exasperated sigh and collapsed.
Mary glanced over, surprised at the reaction. “Are you alright, my lady? Can you hear me?” She jumped off the edge of the bed. “I’ll go get you some water.”
“Sit still for a moment, Mary,” she called out, rising to sit upright again. “I’ll be fine. I just need to think of what to do.”
Mary nodded, still standing, holding her hands clasped before her. She had been gazing obediently at the floor, but tentatively, she raised her eyes to look at her mistress.
“Am I right, then, in thinking that you have no desire to marry the Lieutenant?”
Anna tilted back her head and drew a deep breath. “Who wouldn’t want to marry a man like that, Mary? After all, he’s brave…noble…a fine man.”
“A fine man indeed.”
“But he’s also a naval officer,” Anna continued, her voice edged with a note of complaint. She rose from the bed and stretched, taking a few steps toward the balcony. She stood there for a moment or two, her arms crossed as she gazed out over the gardens.
“Have I ever told you how much I dislike what the navy does to families connected to it?”
“My lady?”
She smiled, running a hand through her tangled black curls. “Oh, how I loved my uncle! Uncle Horatio. I loved it every time he stopped in, even if it was only for an afternoon. But then he was gone. That’s the way it is with naval men, Mary. They can’t ever really marry a girl. They’re married to a ship, and to that great big ocean out there. I don’t know that I want to live that kind of life, even with such a fine man as Elijah.”
“All men will be married to a career, my lady,” Mary said soothingly, taking up a brush from the table and running it through Anna’s hair.
“Yes,” she agreed, her eyes gazing contemplatively at some elusive point on the horizon. “And the woman is not expected to be a part of that work. We must be at home, and their two worlds shall never meet in any significant fashion. It’s horribly unfair.”
The servant laughed. “Then I suppose you must find yourself a man who will let you work beside him. Find something that both of you can do together.”
“If there were such a profession and men willing enough to take them up, women would be flocking to them in hordes, I imagine.”
Mary’s eyes sparkled. “But suppose it were a profession that we wouldn’t ordinarily think of. Suppose there’s a task out there in which a man and his wife can work side by side. As partners for the journey.”
Anna’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Do you have something specific in mind?”
She shrugged. “No…no, it was just a thought.”
Mary continued to try to brush Anna’s hair into some semblance of order while the morning sunlight streamed through the window and washed over them. Anna drew another deep breath and looked outside, into that beautiful, verdant world that seemed just beyond her grasp. Her reality had been replaced with something colorless and bleak, and it disturbed her. More times than she cared to admit, emotion seized her innermost thoughts, and try as she might, there were times when she couldn’t fight it. And this was such a time. She longed to be free, to fight against the pale future that seemed to be overtaking her, but something within her lingered behind, working through the grief that still hovered somewhere in the back of her mind.
“So Elijah will begin to court me, then,” she breathed.
“Or perhaps more than that, my lady,” Mary intoned. “His tour of duty is only estimated to be four months, and he’ll have another brief leave.”
“Then he may propose, and seek to be wedded in four months.”
Mary was silent, but in a manner that indicated she knew more than what she had said. It was not lost on Anna. She took the brush from the maid’s hand and turned to face her.
“Has he already asked my father’s permission for my hand?”
Mary nodded slowly, never breaking her gaze. “Oliver was in the drawing room when it was asked.” She paused for a moment, and blushed heavily. “I shouldn’t have told you that, Miss Anna. I’ve spoiled the surprise.”
“No, no, it’s alright,” she soothed, putting her hands on the servant’s cheeks and raising her face. “You’ve spoiled nothing. But you have softened the shock and given me the warning I needed. So now you must help me, Mary. I have no intention of accepting Elijah’s proposal. At least…I don’t think I will.”
“But surely you must reflect on it, my lady. He’s a fine man; you said it yourself. And remember that you’re nineteen now. It’s expected that you must marry soon, lest your prospects diminish.”
Anna paused and looked at her. Mary was young, but sometimes her sensitivity and her wisdom outmatched her years.
“You’re right, Mary,” she sighed, slumping into a chair. “I’m too impulsive. Part of me doesn’t want to marry Elijah, but another part of me knows it’s the smart thing to do. It would be a wise match. I could learn to love him—easily; I know I could. And I could reconcile myself to being the wife of a seaman. Am I being selfish, Mary, to focus on what I want right now rather than what would probably be best in the long run?”
“I don’t know, my lady,” she replied, barely above a whisper. “No one can answer that question but you.”
“Hmm. Mary, will you come riding with me this afternoon?”
She looked at her mistress uncertainly. “Riding? But there’s work that must be done around the house. Your mother would not be pleased.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I can pacify my mother. I need to talk to you about something. Perhaps you can give me the perspective I lack.”
“Is this about Master McNeill?”
Anna froze and looked at her, a coy smile on her lips. “Perhaps. In any case, I might need your help. Or at least your advice. Will you come?”
“Of course, my lady, but—”
“Good,” she replied, moving briskly to the side of the room, where a dressing-wall had been set up. She walked behind it and started changing out of her nightgown. “Meet me at the stables at one o’clock.”
Mary nodded and began to leave the room. “Will you be having breakfast in the dining room then, my lady?”
“Yes, please, Mary,” came the reply. “I shall be out shortly.”
“Very good, Miss Anna.”

~ ~ ~

Africa?” Ruben let out a whoop of laughter, his face beaming with all of his charming hilarity. “Are you serious, Victor?”
“Serious?” he leaned forward, trying to maintain a somber expression in the face of his friend’s joviality. “Of course I’m serious! You heard about what I told Anna, didn’t you?”
Ruben leaned back in his chair and nodded. The raw, unfinished wood of the simple seat groaned loudly beneath his weight. “Sure, I heard. Everyone knows about that, old chum. It did make me wonder what it was all about.”
Victor clenched his jaw and bowed his head. “It was the hardest thing I ever did, Ruben. Don’t make light of it.”
Patience leaned in and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. He smiled at her appreciatively. The Carmichaels’ house was much as he had last seen it, except now there were none of the heavenly smells of Patience’s cooking wafting from the table. Now there were just the four of them—listening, talking, and wondering in that moment where life would be taking them.
But Ruben had never been one for wondering. He slapped the table with his open palm.
“Well, Victor, if you’re going to Africa, then I’ll go with you!”
All three looked wide-eyed at the bulky Irishman, uncertain at first if he was joking. Victor shook his head in amazement. He had known Ruben long enough to know what was running through his head at that moment. Loyalty and friendship were the highest virtues to Ruben, and if the one best friend he had in all the world was going to go to Africa and die there, then he would be at his side, dying with him.
“Rube,” he groaned, sinking his face into his hands. “You can’t make that decision because of me. Not for my sake. This is bigger than that!” He brought his fist down on the table for emphasis, causing the pewter mugs to jump.
Ruben was silent for a long moment. Then he locked eyes with Victor and clenched his jaw.
“Let me tell you something, Victor. I love my family. I love them more than life itself, and that’s why I work day in and day out in that field out there with them. But I don’t want my life to be like that! I don’t want to be slaving away in a field all day long, breaking my back just to survive! That’s a noble life, but if I have more to give, then I’m going to take every step I can to give it all! I want my life to count for something! You always had that chance with medicine. I can’t be a doctor, we both know that. But I can plod—I can give everything I’ve got to go the distance, to make something work, no matter what the cost. If your legs break in Africa, Victor, then I’ll carry you the rest of the way.”
He had bolted up from his chair halfway through the impassioned speech and was pacing around the room like a madman, his face red and his chest heaving.
Victor paused for a moment, glancing at the others before responding. John merely sat back in his seat, watching impassively, but in his eye was that magical twinkle—something inside him was dancing. Patience was watching Ruben with a mystified expression, half in wonder and half in concern. Even Victor was surprised—very rarely had he seen his friend like this. But whenever it happened, he knew well enough to listen, because what had been said was from the heart.
“Ruben—there are other places to make a difference. Do you know what the life expectancy for an Englishman in Africa is? Less than a year! Don’t come with me unless you know what you’re getting into.”
“Victor,” he breathed out, lowering his voice a notch, “I’ve been looking for something to fight for all my life. And in the past few days here…listening to Patience and John, they gave me the banner to fight under. And now you’ve given me the battlefield. Don’t deny me the chance to stand with you. I know the risks!”
“But if the Lord hasn’t called you there—”
“Hasn’t he called all of us?” Ruben leaned down, his face inches away from his friend’s. “You may not think much of my memory, old friend, but I still have one or two of those old Sunday lessons stuck up here. I know that God gave us his command, to go and spread the Good News to every people, every land. Wasn’t that the very last thing Jesus said to us? Now it seems to me that if I know of the plight of these people in Africa, who have never heard that Good News, and I know that Christ commanded us to take his word to them, then isn’t that calling enough? I would think that those who sit here in England would need to ascertain their special calling from God to remain at home! No, I’m going with you!”
And Victor knew it was over. He marveled at his friend, who in the heat of having his first reaction challenged had managed to reason his way to the noblest argument for missionary service that Victor had ever heard. Ruben had made up his mind, and no amount of debate would change him now, no matter who was speaking. Victor doubted that even the promise of a blossoming romance with Patience would be enough to hold him back.
He leaned back in his seat and threw up his hands. “Alright, Rube,” he chuckled. “You’ve got me. But,” his tone became imperious, “you’re too impulsive, Ruben, and you know it, and I know it. If you have second thoughts about this down the road, you tell me before we’re past the point of no return.”
Ruben flashed his winsome smile. “I passed that point the moment you told me you were going. I’m in this all the way.”
He stretched out his hand. It hung there for a moment while Victor looked at him, as if sizing up his determination. Finally, he stood, took a deep breath, and grasped his friend’s hand.
“Alright, but we start today.”
“Today?” Ruben’s eyes opened wide.
“We’re going to London, old friend. One o’clock, our coach pulls out. I’ll pay for your ticket.”
“What’s in London?”
“The London Missionary Society, that’s what. And you and I will be signing up for Africa.”
Ruben’s grin was wider than ever now. “Africa.”
John and Patience released a simultaneous breath, glancing at one another and smiling. The minister stood, taking one of the young men under each massive arm.

“May the Lord bless you and keep you, lads. May he make his face to shine upon you, and give you peace. You are in his hands.”